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Buddhadharma : Fall 2013
38 BUDDHADHARMA: THE PRACTITIONER’S QUARTERLY FALL 2 0 1 3 PHOTOS(LEFT—RIGHT):LINDAFISHER;UNKNOWN;UNKNOWN LARRY WARD is the director of the Lotus Institute and a dharma teacher in the Order of Interbeing, ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh. He leads mindfulness and engaged Buddhism retreats internationally and is coauthor of Love’s Garden: A Guide to Mindful Relationships. ANDREW OLENDZKI is senior scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts, and the author of Unlimiting Mind. He has a Ph.D in Buddhist Studies from Lancaster University in England and studied Pali and Sanskrit at Harvard and the University of Sri Lanka. RITA M. GROSS is professor emerita of comparative studies in religion at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, and a dharma teacher appointed by Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche. She is the author of Buddhism After Patriarchy, A Garland of Feminist Reflections, and the forthcoming book, Religious Diversity: What’s the Problem? BUDDHADHARMA: Let’s start with a basic defini- tion of karma. What would you say if someone were to come up to you and ask, what is karma? What would your elevator speech be? RITA GROSS: I taught university students this material for about thirty years, and I explained that the word “karma” comes from a Sanskrit verb root that means an action, or to do something. The idea is that our present situa- tion is due to things that have happened in the past, and that what we do with the present situation has a great effect on what the future will be. I often gave the example that if you spend a whole semester not doing your homework and not doing the reading, then you’ll flunk the course—and that’s called karma. On the other hand, if you pay attention and mind your p’s and q’s, you’ll get a better grade than if you didn’t—and that’s also called karma. I’ve always tried to keep it very simple and straightforward. There’s nothing about past and future lives in my elevator speech, and nothing mystical or esoteric. I think karma is better explained as something that we all experience all the time. It isn’t a particularly Eastern idea; it’s just that we’re not used to the word karma. LARRY WARD: I’d define karma in the classic sense, as activity of our body, speech, and thoughts that leaves traces of habits in our mind and brains. ANDREW OLENDZKI: I would start by emphasizing what it does not mean. Everyone assumes that karma means fate because that’s more or less how it’s been translated into English. And so, like Rita, I emphasize that it really means cause and effect—that what you do has a consequence. Fate seems to suggest that somebody is up there in the cosmos keeping track of everything. Karma, as used in the earliest Buddhist teach- ings, largely has to do with your own psychological process. What’s pointed to is not why earthquakes happen or why a meteor strikes, but rather that if you act with hatred, you’re going to be hated or disliked. RITA GROSS: I agree it’s very important that people understand karma isn’t fate, which is the popular knee-jerk definition. LARRY WARD: The other tendency is to interpret karma as ret- ribution, with emphasis on the effect but little on the cause. RITA GROSS: Yes, that comes up a lot, too—that it’s punishment. But that’s not it at all, of course. BUDDHADHARMA: Let’s talk about the nature of these causes and why they lead to specific consequences. For example, would B